Some books stick with you. They are taskmasters while you read them, constantly interrupting your thoughts, your day, demanding you set aside everything you must and want to do to read them. They are dangerous books, not because of their content, but because they become part of your makeup. They weave their story, borne up on words, into your psyche. They become a part of you. If someone wants to know the real you, they must at some point understand these books.
Every story haunts us one way or the other. Some are gentle hauntings – a general sense of warmth, a remembered character, a soft smile when they’re mentioned – like Christopher Robin, or Bilbo. Other books rip us apart with their hauntings – a cold sense of horror, characters we wish to forget, a shudder when they’re mentioned – like Manhunter by John Douglas, or Whispers by Dean Koontz. Some bind us to those around us with their hauntings – a laugh knowing we all know, fans who name their kids after characters, an easy subject to discuss with strangers when they’re mentioned – like Harry Potter.
Taskmaster books go deeper. They whisper to you when you pass them on the shelf. They line your mind with both joy and sorrow. With them comes enlightenment, horror, peace, the world seen through a new light. These books have lines that become your lines. These stories become your stories, the ones you take out and share in a hurried whisper with a close friend. They’re above fan-bases. Sometimes, often, they’re above becoming movies, though it’s attempted, but something’s lost in the translation between word and film. These books haunt their readers in all the ways other books attempt to. They are gentle, ripping, and binding. These are the kind of books every author wants to pen.
Over the last few years, I’ve come across a small handful of these books out of the hundreds I’ve read:
- Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
- L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
- With the Old Breed by EB Sledge
- The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs Jr.
They demanded to be read over everything else going on in my life. They stuck with me, stuck in the back of my heart and mind weaving their stories into mine. Lord of the Rings and Watership Down did the same thing when I first read them.
I came across a new one the other day. It might prove to be only the gentle haunting, not the ripping and binding ones as well. I’m not sure yet. Right now, it feels like one of these great books. It’s Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the story of a mischievous troublemaker, Louis Zamperini, whose older brother encouraged him to take up running to keep him in school and to channel his energy. He became an Olympic Athlete. Then WW2 started. Zamperini’s story takes him literally out of the frying pan and into the fire. After his plane goes down over the Pacific, he spends over 40 days at sea in a life raft, only to be ‘rescued’ by the Japanese. Now his real trials began. He spends several years in POW camps facing starvation and torture. His family and friends don’t know if he’s alive or dead. Zamperini remains unbroken through all these trials until he comes home. Nightmares haunt him. He drinks. He destroys his family. Life seems without hope. But God. And that’s all I’m gonna say. You’re just going to have to read the book!
Unbroken is not a happy story, but it is a joyful story. It reminded me of The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (another haunting, stick-in-your-head story). Not a happy story, but a rich story full of joy.
I think this story will stick with me because it is a wonderful picture of God’s grace in man’s darkest hour. I think it will haunt me because I now know how many soldiers died just trying to learn to fly planes, and how harsh life was as a Japanese POW, but even there Christ had his children. It will inspire me because even in the darkest of these moments, our soldiers and the allied soldiers still fought the war in their own small ways. It will remain a part of me because so many of these men came home broken, but so many of them came home strong. It will become part of me because it was such a vivid picture of God pursuing a sinner to the very bitterest end, through shark-infested waters, sadistic prison wardens, and broken souls. God never let Louis be, not once.
Historically, this book is wonderful just because of the breadth of its scope. The details are rich, well researched, and vivid. Laura Hillenbrand is a masterful writer. I have struggled with how to rate it. It is fairly clean, but the subject matter is very rough just by its nature. It would be a great book to have your children read when they study WW2, but I would probably regulate it to High School. It has a few moments of “adult content” which are minor but still there, and graphic descriptions of the horrors faced by our soldiers.
Unbroken. When I started this book I had no idea the journey it would take me on. I had no idea how much I would come to love this man, Louis Zamperini. I had no idea how vivid the grace of God would be. Someday, I believe I will meet Mr. Zamperini. Not here….but in heaven at the feet of Christ. Maybe I’ll get to tell him how much he encouraged me, at which point I’m sure he’ll say it wasn’t him, but Christ and Christ alone.